China Sandstorms Prompt Health Warnings

Sandstorms whipping across China shrouded cities in an unhealthy cloud of sand and grit Monday, with winds carrying the pollution outside the mainland as far as the island of Taiwan.

Overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought have expanded deserts in the country’s north and west. The shifting sands have gradually encroached onto populated areas and worsened sandstorms that strike cities, particularly in the spring.

Winds blowing from the northwest have been sweeping sand across the country since Saturday, affecting Xinjiang in the far west all the way to Beijing in the country’s east. The sand and dust were carried to parts of southern China and even to cities in Taiwan.

The storms are a product of worsening desertification in Inner Mongolia and other Gobi Desert regions hundreds of miles to the north and west of Beijing. Strong winds pick up the loose dust and dirt, mixing them with industrial pollution.

Beijing’s air quality index was set at Level 4, one grade better than the most serious Level 5 that was reached Saturday as the mixture of sand, dust and pollution blasted the capital. City meteorologists said conditions would improve, but warned the sand would linger through midweek.

Beijing residents hunkered indoors as the fine dust worked its way into homes and offices, cutting visibility to around 1,000 metres. Outside, people scurried along sand-strewn sidewalks, covering their faces with gauzy handkerchiefs or donning surgical masks. There were no immediate reports of illnesses connected to the dust.

“It gets in your throat, under your clothes, in your bed,” said Beijing street sweeper Xue Yuan. “I hate it, but there’s really nothing you can do.” (Washington Post)

“What has lead to the floating dust in Beijing is what we call a ‘Mongolian cyclone’, a whirlwind caused by low atomspheric pressure,” says Zhang Mingying, a senior engineer at the Beijing Meteorology Bureau. “The centre of the Mongolian cyclone is usually 800 to 1,000 kilometres to the northwest of Beijing, a vast desert region covering southern Mongolia and northwestern Inner Mongolia. The cyclone draws sand and dust particles into high altitudes and together with a strong north wind, it brings sand grains to nearby areas, and smaller dust particles further south.” (Time)

Guo Hu, head of Beijing’s Meteorological agency, said the storms have become less frequent in recent years. “The situation improved tremendously after [the 2006 storm],” he told Xinhua. “Thanks to the mild climate and conservation efforts, Beijing had only one sandstorm last year.” (BBC)

The sandstorm in Taiwan, 160 kilometres from the mainland, forced people to cover their faces to avoid breathing in the grit that can cause chest discomfort and respiratory problems even in healthy people. Drivers complained their cars were covered in a layer of black soot in just 10 minutes.

The airport on the Taiwanese-controlled islet of Matsu, just off the mainland coast, suspended services Sunday due to poor visibility caused by the sandstorm.

In Hong Kong, environmental protection officials said pollution levels were climbing as the sandstorm moved south. Twenty elderly people sought medical assistance for shortness of breath, Hong Kong’s radio RTHK reported. The Hong Kong government urged people to stay indoors and encouraged schools to cancel sports events.

Across the 160-kilometre -wide Taiwan Strait, island residents covered their mouths to avoid breathing the grit. Some flights were canceled due to poor visibility caused by the sandstorm.

Li Dongping, a tourist visiting Tiananmen Square from southern China, said more needs to be done to boost environmental protection and public awareness. “We need to improve our environment, we should plant more trees and improve the soil infrastructure, and also we should raise our sense of environmental protection,” Li said. (Washington Post)

Grit from Chinese sandstorms has been found to travel as far as South Korea, Japan and even the western United States. The sand that covered the city of Taipei on Sunday had mostly moved to the island’s south by Monday, and was expected to dissipate by Tuesday.

The Central Meteorological Station urged people to close doors and windows, and cover their faces with masks or scarves when going outside. Sensitive electronic and mechanical equipment should be sealed off, the station said in a warning posted Monday on its website.

China Central Television told viewers to clean out their noses with salt water and remove grit from ears with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol.

State television’s noon newscast showed the tourist city of Hangzhou on the eastern coast, where graceful bridges and waterside pagodas were hidden in a mix of sand and other pollution.

In Beijing, residents and tourists with faces covered scurried along sidewalks to minimize exposure to the pollution.

Over the weekend China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, visited the region and called for united efforts to combat what he called an “extraordinary disaster”. (Al Jazeera.net)

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing warned that particulate matter in the air made conditions “hazardous”, though high winds dispersed some of the pollution and the air quality was later upgraded to “very unhealthy”. (CBC)

Duan Li, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Meteorological Station, said conditions in the city seemed more severe because a sandstorm on Saturday deposited grit on rooftops, sidewalks and trees. The winds Monday carried in even more sand and stirred up what was already there.

The latest sandstorms were the most severe in China in several years. A massive sandstorm hit Beijing in 2006, when winds dumped about 300,000 tons of sand on the capital.

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